Digest>Archives> November 2009

The Fearless Four

By Richard Clayton


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Wylie E. Kopeka, one of the Fearless Four who ...

Destiny often brings men together whose brave actions live on in history. Such was the case with four young men who grew up in Ashtabula County, Ohio. They had ample opportunity to choose careers as seaman on the Great Lakes or workers in the ship yards or as dock workers in a busy port; however, each, for his own reasons, decided on a career at the Ashtabula Harbor Lighthouse.

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Ashtabula Harbor Lighthouse, Ohio as it appeared ...

Two of the men started their careers as 2nd Assistant Keeper and worked their way up to being the Head Keeper. The other two started out as 3rd Assistants and one of them worked his way up to Head Keeper. Each one was on duty at the harbor light totaling a span of thirteen years. Meet:

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Ashtabula Harbor Lighthouse as it appeared in ...

During a two year span, from 1927 to 1929, all four were on duty at the harbor light at the same time. The Fearless Four made their mark in history on a day in January, 1928.

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The lantern room of Ohio's Ashtabula Harbor ...

The Port of Ashtabula, located on Lake Erie’s coastline, is about an hour between Cleveland, Ohio and Erie, Pennsylvania. In 1916, the new lighthouse structure was doubled in size from the original light. It was set in a new 50-foot concrete crib at the end of the breakwater and the tower rose 50 feet above the lake. The two-story building, constructed of steel plates, was now able to house all the keepers.

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Undated photo of the Ashtabula Harbor Lighthouse ...

The Ashtabula Harbor Lighthouse was located near the northern end of the west breakwater in the harbor. Though the current lighthouse is nearly a century old, it is not the first to stand watch. That honor belongs to the 1836 hexagonal tower which sat atop a forty foot square wooden crib connected to the Ashtabula River’s east pier by a ramp.

During the first half of the twentieth century, the Port of Ashtabula was one of the busiest on Lake Erie. It received tons of coal that was sent by railroad car to the steel mills in Erie, PA along with tons of iron ore that was shipped to the mills. The Great Lakes Engineering Works operated a large shipyard in Ashtabula that produced many ore boats for use on the Great Lakes, as well as building ships for the U.S. Navy. The average population, in those years, was 22,000 people.

January, 1928, started out the year with mild weather, leaving open water in the lake around the breakwater exposed on three sides. About noon on January 20th, the sky was clear with a small build up of clouds in the west. There was no snow on the ground and the day was warmer than the day before. It looked like Ashtabula was in for a pleasant weekend.

Frances Comeford, the first assistant, and Wylie Koepka, the second, planned to spend three days in town. They were taking the station supply launch to port in the afternoon and would return Monday evening. Frank Sellman, the head keeper, and Eugene Ray, the third assistant, would man the station in their absence. The established policy for time away from the station was that either the keeper or the first assistant remained in charge of the lighthouse at all times; thus the two men alternated their days off. As a team, the four keepers lowered the station power boat into the water.

As they were leaving, Comeford said to the new man, “Ray, I hope you like strong coffee, because that’s the only way Sellman knows how to make it.”

“Try to bring the boat back in one piece,” Sellman said. “And don’t come back without the doughnuts.” Koepka and Comeford waved goodbye as they sped off in the motor boat.

Looking at the clouds in the west, Sellman said, “Looks like it might rain in Cleveland.” Then he turned and went inside the lighthouse and closed the iron door. The head keeper had been at the lighthouse for thirteen years and was a good teacher for Ray who had been the 3rd assistant for less than a year. There was a lot to learn. They had electricity in the house for lighting; however, the lantern in the tower was still a kerosene lamp inside a fourth order Fresnel lens that showed a steady red light.

Shortly after dark, Sellman was standing watch in the tower, when a sudden gust of wind rattled the windows. There was a blinding flash of lightning, followed by a boom of thunder and then the rain came. At 2 o’clock when Ray came upstairs to stand his watch, he reported that waves on the West side of the lake were crashing over the breakwater. “I guess summer’s over,” Sellman said as he went downstairs.

The gale continued all day Saturday with the temperature reaching zero. Due to the open water and the force of the gale, the sea and spray froze to the lighthouse crib and the buildings, completely encasing the entire structure with heavy ice. When a layer of warm air is between two layers of cold air, an ice storm occurs; characterized by freezing rain, also known as a glaze event in some parts of the United States and are common in the Great Lakes area.

On Sunday the 22nd, Ray discovered that the exit door on the east side of the house was frozen shut. Sellman nodded and went into the tool room and came out with a blow torch. He opened the valve and lit the escaping gas vapor with a match. As soon as it was blowing hot, he carefully heated the metal hinges and then the frame of the iron door. Ray pulled it open to view a solid sheet of ice blocking their escape. Sellman turned off the blow torch and said, “Time to break out the pick ax and hatchets.”

It was Eugene Ray’s first time to be ice bound and he was feeling a bit of a panic. In a quiet voice, Sellman said, “It’s probably only two or three feet thick. We’ll be out in no time. Here take this pick ax and start chopping and I’ll clear away the ice fragments from behind you. When you’re wearing down, we’ll change jobs.”

Comeford and Koepka started out from town to see about the safety of their buddies. The two men had to go over two miles to find a safe crossing over the ice.

Upon arrival at the station, they encountered a solid mass of ice, varying in thickness from two to five feet on the two most exposed sides of the entire lighthouse.

Working at a steady pace using a pick and a crowbar, Sellman and Ray dug a trench for a distance of nearly forty feet to reach the side of the square concrete crib that supported the station. The walls of the crib were about ten feet above the level of the breakwater, so they placed a ladder on the side of the crib down to the stone rocks for Comeford and Koepka to climb up to join them.

Plugged exhaust pipes, an ice encased lantern and glazed windows on the outside of the tower caused many difficulties and it took the combined effort of the men to clear away the ice and make minor repairs.

Later photographs showed the lighthouse to have been so completely encased in ice as to be scarcely recognizable as a lighthouse station. The ice-covered features presented many fantastic shapes. The height of the lighthouse tower was over 52 feet above water which showed the height of the seas and spray during the storm.

Late Sunday afternoon, the four keepers were exhausted and sitting at the kitchen table in the station quarters.

Francis Comeford said, “You know Frank, if Wylie and I hadn’t come out here on our day off, you two guys might have died in this icy tomb. By rights, you two owe us another day off.”

Wylie Koepka stood up and said, “I think I’ll make a fresh pot of coffee. You know, Ray, you might have died of starvation trying to eat Sellman’s cooking.”

Frank Sellman exhaled a deep sigh

as he raised his arms and said, “You two guys are absolutely worthless. You forgot the doughnuts!”

Frank L. Sellman

2nd Assistant - 1915-1917

1st Assistant - 1917-1919

Head Keeper - 1921 - 1929

Francis E. Comeford

2nd Assistant - 1919 - 1926

1st Assistant - 1926 - 1929

Head Keeper - 1929 - 1932

Wylie E. Koepka

3rd Assistant - 1920 - 1927

2nd Assistant - 1927 - 1929

1st Assistant - 1929 - 1933

Never a head keeper

Eugene A. Ray

3rd Assistant - 1927 - 1929

2nd Assistant - 1929 - 1933

1st Assistant - 1933 - 1937

Head Keeper - 1937 - 1940

This story appeared in the November 2009 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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